Thursday, April 01, 2004

TV Nation Hides Bibliophiles!
Recently, I was asked how I inspire my ESL students to read. The other teacher was saying that she heard from her students over and over that they really don't like to read, and she couldn't really understand why. While I didn't have a very good answer about how I inspire them, I think I might have an explanation as to why our students don't like reading. It pretty much comes down to a cultural difference.

The difference is in book culture. We in the US have little conception of how easy we have it. Books are easily available, in a multitude of forms, from mass market paperbacks to collector's editions. They are also cheap. Oh, sure, I like to complain about how when I started reading the Babysitter's Club books back in first grade they were only $1.95, and by the time I stopped reading them a few years later, they were over $3, but compared to other countries, that's just so much priviledged whining. In most parts of the world, books are expensive. Books I bought in both Chile and Japan, paperbacks, mind you, were over $10, and that was a quite reasonable price. Books are actually luxury items, and people don't buy them as often, or in such quantity.

When I was in Japan for break, I mentioned that my friend Chris wanted to visit Book Off while he was visiting Sendai. While the easiest way to explain Book Off is to say it's a used bookstore, that's also a misnomer. It's a used *manga* store. In Japan certainly, and perhaps other parts of Asia, comics and graphic novels are written for all ages and demographics, and fill the niche that books occupy in the US. As ESL teachers, we love to tell the students that they can learn so much more English by reading in their free time, and blithely assume they'll go out and find some English version of whatever their favorite books were in their home countries. We are working on flawed assumptions.

A fellow MATESOL student from Taiwan told me yesterday that when she came to the US, she was shocked by the number of people she saw carrying books around with them. They read in coffee shops, on planes, on trains, on the bus, everywhere. It seemed very alien to her. For all that the media, teachers, parents, and people in general like to bemoan the decline of reading in the youth of America, by the standards of other countries, our TV nation is actually hiding a nation of bibliophiles. Even my brother, the original athletic, hyperactive, "I hate reading" kid, has been known to pick up a book for fun every now and then, from Chicken Soup for the Soul to Bill Bryson's Appalachain Woods. What's more, he then talks about them as having been enjoyable. Amazing.

Our ESL students, by and large, are not from this kind of book culture. They're not even from the same pedagogical background. By the time the average American student gets to college, he or she is well-versed in how to read and analyze literature. We've been gradually taught how to appropriately read in an academic setting since elementary school. In middle school, we start learning how to read analytically, and by high school we're expected to use outside literary criticism to uphold our personal opinions and insights in 3-page essays of comparitive analysis. And that's just for fiction. We learned it so gradually, it no longer really registers as something we learned. When we get to college, we've got literary analysis down cold, if not always well, as some professors of freshman composition would no doubt argue. We use this as a basis to start applying our analytical style to non-fiction articles, books, and researches. That famous five paragraph essay we learned back in 5th grade is back there in the depths of our minds, influencing us still. It's a solid educational foundation, and the basis of our university system.

My ESL students don't know how to do this. They've never read anything in English longer than an article, in many cases. They've never written an analytical paper. They come from a test-driven, passive intake system of education. The idea that they would be asked to write about their own opinions in class seems laughable. To express your own opinion in class is disrespectful; it might show disagreement with the teacher, who is the font of all knowledge. There is no possible way that university professors would expect individual, original analysis as evidence of learning. They can't possibly base course grades on such a frivolous approach. Right?

Wrong. And we are doing our students in the ESL environment a disservice by not exposing them to and preparing them for the actual American university learning system. They didn't expect to travel all the way to the US to be put in a class full of people from their own country, in classes that still have them playing silly little games and performing silly little dialogues in an effort to get them to just concentrate on the isolated elements and "skills" of English, only barely contextualized. Many of my students are here for a semester or year abroad, it's true, but all the rest of them are here because they're trying to get into a masters' or PhD program. It is true that they are in the IEP program because their English proficiency scores weren't high enough, but that doesn't mean they should be kept in such an isolated environment within the university they might as well not be at a university at all. They need teachers who will teach them university-style classes full of language they can understand, which often means simply slowing things down and giving them extra explanations. They do not need teachers who make them review overly simplified vocabulary and constructions on the same overgeneralized and irrelevant topics they've been learning for upwards of 7 years previously. If we teach ESL at a university, we need to do so, rather than teaching decontextualized ESL classes that happen to be using university classrooms. If our students start to have a feeling that what they're learning might actually be relevant, they might actually start to like reading.

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